Hobbes: A First Note on Faith and Skepticism

Jason Kuznicki

Jason Kuznicki is a research fellow at the Cato Institute and contributor of Cato Unbound. He's on twitter as JasonKuznicki. His interests include political theory and history.

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16 Responses

  1. BlaiseP says:

    Perhaps my view of Hobbes and religion isn’t complete, but Hobbes thought the monarch should regulate religion.  Heresy was a crime at the time.   Whatever he may have thought about God, Leviathan got him in hot water enough.

    From the records of the House of Commons:

    Die Mercurii, 17 Octobris, 18 Car. IIdi.
    Atheism, &c.

    ORDERED, That the Committee to which the Bill against Atheism and Profaneness is committed, be impowered to receive Information touching such Books as tend to Atheism, Blasphemy, or Profaneness, or against the Essence or Attributes of God; and, in particular, the Book published in the Name of one White; and the Book of Mr. Hobbs, called The Leviathan; and to report the Matter, with their Opinions, to the House.Report

  2. Tom Van Dyke says:

    If the Bible say that God once made a burning bush speak, and we believe it not, then we distrust not God, but only the authors of the Bible.

    Jason, I believe Hobbes is speaking not of the Bible itself here, but of certain books whose canonicity was disputed, as well as creeds and doctrines drawn from it [to which he refers in the previous section] by “Prophets” [Luther?  Calvin?] and we assume Roman Catholicism as well.

    Anything that could be imputed as criticizing Papism was pretty safe in 1600s Britain, and this argument is made in the context of the Puritan Revolution during which Leviathan was written.

    Hobbes’ argument, from which he draws Biblical support re Israel, is that

    Christian kings are still the supreme pastors of their people, and have power to ordain what pastors they please, to teach the Church, that is, to teach the people committed to their charge.

    …if only to disempower the Roman church and whatever Protestant dissenters were stirring up the trouble.  Since only the king has the power to preserve the civil order, ’tis he who must be the final arbiter of theological disputes.




    • BlaiseP in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

      Yup.  And Her Majesty Elizabeth II is still styled Supreme Governor of the Church of England.Report

    • That’s how I read Hobbes, too:

      Christian kings are still the supreme pastors of their people, and have power to ordain what pastors they please, to teach the Church, that is, to teach the people committed to their charge.

      It practically screams “Henry VIII was right!”, doesn’t it? It is not only the king’s right, but the king’s duty to keep the peace in the commonwealth (a Christian commonwealth) by resolving theological disputes and proclaiming moral right from moral wrong. 

      Which, when I look at how controversial forms of religious dissent were treated by most of the Tudor and Stuart monarchs with flame roasting, it winds up leaving me a bit queasy that Hobbes could write off such things as a necessary evil (elsewhere, seems to me that he did deplore murderous religious intolerance), but Hobbes could brook no checks upon the monarch’s power in this of all spheres.Report

    • Chris in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

      Tom’s right. Hobbes, if I remember correctly, questioned whether we could know that the Bible was divinely inspired, but he says outright that everyone (Christians) should believe that it is. As a result, the Bible is exempt from the fallibility of mere mortals, because it isn’t really of mere mortals.

      Of course, Hobbes’ Biblical exegesis was pretty idiosyncratic, so he must have believed that man’s interpretation of the Bible was fallible.Report

  3. Jon Rowe says:


    We may have our minds jaded by not only Strauss and his followers but other, less eccentric scholars, who argue that you have to “read between the lines” given the possibility of civil punishment for heresy during those days.  That said, there is a scholar named Joseph Waligore who argues the more exoteric case re the Enlightenment “Deists” and concludes:

    “While almost all scholars continually assert that the God of the Enlightenment deists was a remote, uninvolved, watchmaker God that generated no love or warmth in people, none of these assertions are true.   A majority of the deists thought God or the angels performed miracles; many of them prayed fervently to a God they adored; some even went into raptures of ecstasy at God’s wonderful benevolence.  Some of them believed God or the angels protected people from danger by putting thoughts into people’s minds warning them of danger. Many believed the devil might perform miracles, and so any possible revelation backed by miracles had to be examined to be sure it was not done by the devil.   A significant number of them viewed themselves as sincere Christians who spent their lives explaining where and why orthodox Christianity had strayed from Jesus’ simple message.   A few were more interesting or featherbrained (depending on your perspective): one believed an angel had given him the key to interpreting prophecy, another said he received a sign from God to publish his first book, and another believed in reincarnation.  Enlightenment deism was not modern secularism, or even a halfway house to it; the deists were preaching a religious alternative to orthodox Christianity that they hoped the world would embrace.  Their piety and theology has been neglected, but it is due to our misunderstanding of it and not their theology’s lack of interest or influence on our culture’s intellectual history.”

    I’m not sure if I am comfortable calling this “Deism”: but Waligore’s point is that many of the “Enlightenment Deists” (Hobbes and Rousseau for instance) actually believed THIS.Report

    • Rufus F. in reply to Jon Rowe says:

      That’s a really interesting point. I also find it interesting how many “Enlightenment deists” that we talk now never really called themselves deists at the time or talked much about anything like it.


    • Matty in reply to Jon Rowe says:

      There’s an echo here of the idea Jon Rowe has been promoting for years. That some prominent early Americans (Jefferson is the name that comes to mind) can get classed as Deists on the basis of their criticism of Christian doctrine but really belong in a third category.Report

  4. Robert Cheeks says:

    In order to solve a particular dilemma, Hobbes argued that there was no ‘public truth’  beyond the law of peace and a social existence within that peace. He provides a rather excellent explication why this is so culminating in a metaxical analysis worthy of the Greeks: and, of course, there’s the question of the open or closed soul and the two truths that stand over any human society in a constant and ongoing tension. Hobbes, like many philosophers proferred a system where they had configured a means to establish his ‘new truth’, a final truth waiting only for that sovereign with the acuity to understand and the will to power to bring it to fruition. And, of course, he was a high priest in the Gnostic world of dreams where he not only eschewed Christianity but philosophy as well. If you can’t answer the question, don’t allow it to be asked.Report

  5. Michael Drew says:

    I can’t speak to much of what Hobbes says about religion in the work, but it seems that if we would grant a modern atheist author the license to talk about what God might or might not do in the manner of, “God surely doesn’t play dice,” positing the existence of God arguendo, then we should grant this to Hobbes.  At least we shouldn’t be sure he couldn’t have been doing this.  I’m quite sure that Hobbes was a deist.  But here his point seems simply to be that whatever man says about God, that in itself actually says nothing about God.  Man could be deluded about God, and God could still be.  The word of man is just only the word of man, even if his subject is God.  (If the Bible is the Word of God, then that of course is a different story.)Report

  6. Jason Kuznicki says:

    To be very clear, I don’t think Hobbes was an atheist or even a deist as we would use the term.  It’s just that the argument about Livy (or Herodotus, or any other ancient source, take your pick) is all a reader needs to set off in that direction.  No doubt it could have dispelled a faith in the Church of Rome.  But it didn’t necessarily stop there.Report

    • Burt Likko in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

      Yes, it could have dispelled faith in pretty much any religion if pushed hard enough, which no doubt played a part of why Parliament had some issues with it.

      Of course, the larger reason Parliament had trouble with it was not hints of unpopular theology that were explicitly disclaimed elsewhere in the book, it was that it was unabashedly monarchial in its politics, during a time that Parliament (by which I mean Oliver Cromwell) figured England pretty much didn’t need a King at all.Report

  7. Rufus F. says:

    I think he was very much trying to criticize a faith in the Church of Rome, like you say, based on its claim to rule on earth. But, he gets himself into just that pickle- if we’re supposed to question the claims of people who say they’re giving us the word of God based on the unlikeliness of such a thing and the possibility that they’re using the claim to gain power on earth, why exactly do we take Moses’s word on it?

    I think his answer goes with idea of natural law, so that revelation that both jibes with natural law and coincides with a miracle would be legitimate and we can therefore keep the Bible. I don’t know that it really solves the problem though.Report